Feelings Matter because Motion Emotes.

ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George LakoffThomas NagelAntonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.

I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.

He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.

Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:

There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.

I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).

Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.

Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.

Alan Watts can always say it better:

Naturalizing Representation

I wrote this essay a few years ago for a philosophy of mental representation course. I think I would rework a few ideas looking back, but I would still defend the idea that reality is not describable from 1st or 3rd person perspectives alone. Both are part of a larger ongoing whole/part.

Q: Why is misrepresentation supposed to be so difficult to explain naturalistically? Do you think it is possible to do so?

To properly address the question, we must first gain an understanding of the context of naturalism in science and its relationship to a representational theory of mind. Naturalism refers to the philosophical stance that all phenomena are natural, physical processes, and therefore that “all supernatural phenomena are nonexistent, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena” (wikipedia.com). When applied to cognitive science, naturalism provides the foundational dogma of the representational paradigm, requiring that consciousness be equated with the lawful, physical functioning of the brain. From this perspective, a theorist need not concern him or herself with subjective experience itself, but rather ought to study only that small part of experience decreed measurable in objective, physical terms. It is either, then, that (a) consciousness—something we all experience directly every moment—has been deemed supernatural, and as such nonexistent, or (b) consciousness is simply not required for a naturalistic description of the universe.

Leaving the issue of such a negation of consciousness aside for a moment, let us lay out the problem of misrepresentation. Naturalistic representational theories suppose that the world exists preformed and ready-made for our brain, which is inserted into it as if from outside. Once inside, the brain retrieves basic information about this pre-existing world via the senses. From there, further processing leads to some form of cognitive representation. These mental representations mirror the world, acting as vehicles carrying their contents to an agent. There is, however, a tendency for the brain to incorrectly supply the vehicles with their content, thereby representing the world inaccurately. Any naturalistic explanation of misrepresentation, then, must reveal how a purely physical system such as the brain could mistakenly retrieve and represent information from the world. It must also shed light on what it means that a representation should represent what it does (i.e., what role can interpretation play in what is supposedly an objective world?).

Some theorists suggest that mental representations are only pragmatic mirrors of the world, meaning they are required to be merely good enough to get one by. They cite that evolution does not require perfection, only proficiency. An organism’s cognitive map need only recreate especially vital aspects of its environment correctly (i.e., it need only function properly most of the time). The glitches in the representational process are said to deal with aspects of the world largely unrelated to survival and procreation; they therefore are tolerable to the functioning of the system.

How such a pragmatic theory of representation deals with the notion of interpretation is unclear. To say that representations should refer to the world correctly because natural selection has accidentally programmed them to do so is to forget the large role that interpretation plays in higher-level cognition. For instance, in the case of human cognition, one cannot use natural selection to explain why one person sees a glass of water half full and another half empty. Clearly, each chose* how to represent the glass themselves, one feeling it should be half empty and the other feeling it should be half full. What also becomes clear in this example is that each person might change their mind in the future should they so choose (they can swap representations of the glass at will).

* In this case, “chose” refers to the interpretive process of the overall cognitive apparatus (predispositions, and current emotional status) and not to some specific notion of a self who makes a distinct choice based on free will. The point of the example is merely to show that the way the world appears to each person depends on the subjective state of their perceptual mechanism, rather than on the state of some objective, external domain. Such a domain, could it be said to exist at all, is not one the human organism is privy to.

Of course, the theory of a pragmatic representational process may still hold for certain unconscious operations; but when the representations in question are brought to the level of awareness, they seem to gain their momentum from an aspect of reality deemed superfluous by naturalism (that aspect being one’s actual subjective experience). In other words, the role played by interpretation in selecting representations seems to call into question the premise of the problem of misrepresentation itself. For, if interpretation can play such a large role in how we represent the world, why is it that we suppose there is an objective world “out there” for us to represent in the first place? Once this metaphysical assumption is called into question, the issue of misrepresentation becomes moot. If there is no objective world to represent (at least not one we are capable of reaching), one needn’t worry about misrepresenting anything at all.

Before continuing too deeply into this question of the substantiality of the physical world, let us see from another route why it is that we must call it into question. Let us start with a description of what we know about the brain, given by Alan Wallace:

“…What neuroscientists actually know is that specific neural events (N) are correlated to specific mental events (M), such that if N occurs, M occurs; if M occurs, N occurs; if N doesn’t occur, M doesn’t occur; and if M doesn’t occur, N doesn’t occur. Such a correlation could imply that the occurrence of N has a causal role in the production of M, or vice versa; or it could imply that N and M are actually the same phenomenon viewed from different perspectives. There is not enough scientific knowledge at this point to determine which of these types of correlation is the correct one.
So then, we see only a correlational relationship between brain states and mind states. We must then ask: How might someone who equates brain states with mind states (i.e., a naturalist) account for the intentionality of cognitive systems? Such a theorist would say that evolution has designed the brain (a) to directly represent its own body and (b) to indirectly represent whatever it interacts with. Neurons are then said to serve the specific evolutionary function of representing those interactions. “In short,” Wallace says, “[their] solution to this problem is that the brain has the capacity to represent other things because it was designed that way ‘by evolution.’ This ‘explanation’ obviously illuminates nothing other than the fact that [such a theorist has] great faith in the mysterious ways of evolution, which for the biologist here takes on the role theologians have long ascribed to God.” In other words, saying that a representation has content (that a neural state is about something) because of evolution does nothing to further our understanding of what is going on.

Regardless of this shortcoming, the role played by interpretation in developing the human cognitive system’s understanding of the world is under attack by most naturalist scientists. Their goal, based on the notion of a pre-existing external world, is to disambiguate our conceptual models so that they better fit the actual world in which we live. In other words, they suppose that there is an independent and objective world, and that within our head is an imperfect re-creation of that world based on sensory input. They then assign themselves the task of correctly aligning our inner representations with the true outer reality. The problem with this approach, as Wallace explains, is that:

“…Scientists have no body of external objective truth by which the alignment of scientific theories and the world outside our heads can be calibrated…The empirical data that we perceive, together with our scientific theories that account for them, all consists of mental representations ‘within our heads’…We have no objective yardstick with which to compare those representations with what we assume to be the ‘real world.’”
The basic idea is that, if our only view of the world comes through the filter of representation, we can never know what the world is in itself. This seems troublesome, but this is only so because we feel so compelled to know the intrinsic qualities of things in themselves. Hilary Putnam refers to this grasping after things in themselves as “the deep systemic root” of the objectivist view of the world. He argues against the idea that intrinsic qualities exist at all, as all “objects” gain their meaning only in relation to the subject whose nervous system interprets them. He argues that we cannot understand what an object “is” if we suppose our representation refers to a mind-independent object. Instead, objects are said not to exist independently of our conventions and conceptual schemes. It is our interpretation of the world that breaks it up into objects. Putnam continues: “Since the ‘objects’ and their [representations] are alike internal to the scheme of description, it is possible to say what matches what.” So then, from this perspective, mental representations have content because they are contextually embedded in one’s chosen (or culturally adopted, or biologically predisposed) conceptual map of the world.

The problem of misrepresentation, then, seems impossible to explain naturalistically. Insisting on a naturalistic account of the mind using the representational model puts unnecessary constraints on a viable theory of cognition, requiring that one tip-toe quietly around an insoluble problem using over-complicated distractions and abstract logical gymnastics. No matter how many linguistic loops a philosopher tries to run around the issue, it remains steadfast in its implications: no physical entity, no matter how complex, can be about another. We know this because aboutness implies meaning, and there is no room for meaning in a causal world of automatic and objective physical processes. Meaning requires context to be understood, and context is relational and groundless. That is, no part of a contextual scheme’s meaning can be known objectively “in itself,” only in terms of what it is not (or how it relates to the whole). We derive meaning from the world experientially by being embedded in our own conceptual understanding of it, not by correctly representing its preformed state.

It seems easier to start again—dropping the metaphysical requirement of a separate, external world—beginning, instead, with what we know: that neural states seen in 3rd person and mental states experienced in 1st person are both valid perspectives of what must be one co-existing reality. As such, reality cannot yet be reduced to an objectively existing physical world of matter (or to an imagined creation of the subjective mind). Any theory of cognition that begins its reasoning from a naturalistic perspective therefore assumes more than empirical science has yet proven.


à“The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience” by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The MIT Press. (Excerpts from pages 232-233).

à“A Science of Consciousness: Buddhism (1), the Modern West (0)” by Alan Wallace. 2002. The Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Third Series, No. 4.

Hofstadter, Wittgenstein, Varela: Loops, Language, Poesis

The purpose of this essay is to display how the Enlightenment’s arête became its harmartia. In other words, it is to show how Modernity’s greatest virtue became its tragic flaw. Its virtue was to separate the Big Three: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This differentiation lead to all the positive aspects of Modern existence (human rights, quality of life, value of personal expression, etc.) that pre-Modernity had not yet made explicit. However, this virtue became a tragic flaw as the Big Three not only moved apart to define their own turf, but also became totally fragmented and disassociated, unable to communicate with one another. The True was defended by objective scientific investigation. It represented a form of knowing that revealed the “It” world of matter in motion. The Beautiful was defended by subjective aesthetic interpretation. It represented a form of knowing that revealed the “I” world of imagination and artistic expression. The Good was defended by “the people,” who together formed the free, intersubjective communities that agreed to protect the inalienable rights of each individual. Its form of knowing represented the “We” world, but its full force has mostly been lost amidst the dust storm kicked up by the battle between the “I” and the “It.” The Good became an inarticulatable middle ground that was supposed to bridge the Beautiful and the True, but its substance seemed to dissolve as the latter two became more and more separated.

Since language is the medium through which I will attempt to communicate these ideas, it seems fitting that we begin with an explanation of what it means to speak, write, and think under such terms. What is language? Wittgenstein’s early project was to define language in the terms most familiar to the Western tradition, running through Augustine up until Russell. His aim was to show that all philosophy consisted in defining the logical form of sentences. In other words, a certain proposition was thought to be isomorphic to a certain event in the world. When this isomorphism lined up (i.e., when the sentence referred to a real state of affairs in the world) then the sentence was true. This project, of course, rests on the basic assumption that the world is independent of the proposition (and presumably the being who proposes it). This separation between the world and its description (and describer) is what lead the early Wittgenstein to see language as a mirroring of the world’s pre-given state [i.e., as a sharing of its logical form, or an accurate depiction (picturing) of it]. In this sense, a true thought is a thought that logically matches an event that occurs in the world. Philosophy’s job was to analyze these thoughts and sentences to make sure they were expressed in their true logical form. The driving force behind this project was, quite simply, to end all philosophy.

As far as the early Wittgenstein was concerned, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was the solution to every philosophical problem. To get the book published, however, Wittgenstein needed to include an introduction to his work courtesy of the more popular Russell. Russell seemed convinced that Wittgenstein was a genius. Wittgenstein himself, on the other hand, remained skeptical that Russell even understood the book. Nonetheless, the book was published and Wittgenstein left philosophy to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher. Years latter, he came into contact with the Vienna Circle, an influential group of thinkers that had built themselves up around what they took to be the central tenets of the Tractatus: a) we get knowledge only from sensory experience, and b) we can accurately understand that experience only in terms of logical analysis. These maxims are based on the Tractatus’ characterization of language as being composed of simple atomistic statements referring to empirical truths discovered in the world, such as “It is raining,” or “The ground is wet.” Such linguistic atoms can then be built into meaningful molecules of propositional thought, such as the statement: “It is raining outside, therefore the ground is wet.” The building and clarification of such statements is, for the Circle, the goal of all logically sound philosophical discourse. Their goal was to usher in a new age of thought centered around scientific positivism and linguistic analysis. Their biggest target was metaphysics, both theological and existential. For the Circle, any statement about the world that did not make reference to some sensory state given by that world is meaningless (i.e., it is a pseudo-statement). They saw the struggle between metaphysics and positivism as identical to the one between an out-dated, childish religion and a mature, levelheaded science. One ought to face up, the Circle would say, to modern human existence, an existence in which a statement’s meaning referred to its logical accuracy in comparison to the objective world, rather than to its value in relation to some silent and unseen transcendental realm unreachable with analysis. Wittgenstein, however, thought his work had been misunderstood once again.

The whole purpose of the Tractatus, he would try to explain to the Circle, was to show the limits of philosophy and logical analysis. It was not, as the Circle saw it, to make such logical positivism the be all and end all of humanity’s understanding of itself; quite the contrary, it was to show that logic, objectivism, and any breed of universalizing philosophy was necessarily silent on issues concerning genuine human life. In the final pages of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein discusses what his supposedly complete picture of language and its relationship to the world leaves out. He begins by asserting that “all propositions are of equal value” (6.4) In other words, every true statement about the world is just as true as any other true statement about the world. None of them are in any way more important or more valuable than any others. He does so to set the stage for the actual point of the whole book, which is to substantiate the ethical to a sphere beyond anything logical positivism could ever swallow up into its methods of analysis. The ethical is the intuitive sense an existing individual has concerning what is most important about life. Wittgenstein did not think being such an ethical being was optional, as even the members of the Circle made a value judgment by assuming their method of investigation was the most important among all other methods. One cannot live without making ethical judgments. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein thought “the sense of the world must lie outside the world” (6.41). If all propositions are of equal value, and yet “there is a value which is of value” (i.e., a value which is important), then “it must lie outside the world.” It does indeed follow from this that “there can be no ethical propositions” (6.42), which the Circle certainly agreed with. However, Wittgenstein did not mean to say that ethics was therefore meaningless. His claim was that ethics only existed outside the world of objects known to empirical/logical investigation. It was one of those areas of human existence that Wittgenstein chose to remain relatively silent about in the more philosophically oriented Tractatus because he felt it was transcendental and therefore propositionally inexpressible. For Wittgenstein, the question of ethics was always intermingled with the question of religion, as both are equally transcendent in his view. He saw the question of religion as being essentially about personal identity and the notion of an immortal soul. “The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.” (6.4312). In other words, because it seems that our current temporal existence is no more mysterious than any supposed eternal existence would be, we can only suppose that the solution to the problem of life comes from another dimension entirely. This removes the problem of life from the set of logical problems that natural science might attempt to solve. It makes a question of life that positivism cannot even begin to answer because it transcends the world that positivism can make propositional claims about.

“How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world” (6.432). What is “higher” is what is important, what has value, what senses the world from outside the world. The religious, for Wittgenstein, has nothing to do with how the world is, but that it is. “The contemplation of the world from the view of eternity is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling” (6.45). “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer” (6.52). Wittgenstein has already defined the only proper and true use of language as being the logical picturing of the world. He then showed how the problem of life, of its meaning and value, does not fall within the world that can be so pictured. The problem of life is transcendental because its value is not equal to the value of all other logically definable propositions, but is somehow higher. But because it transcends the world, one cannot speak about it and make any sense because all language can refer meaningfully only to facts within the world. Therefore: “The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other-he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy-but it would be the only strictly correct method” (6.53). The other “would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy” because there is something strangely insincere about such a philosophical method. However, if philosophy is to leave behind its metaphysical past and come to terms with the empirical knowledge of science, it must let go of its otherworldly strivings and concentrate on logically mapping language to the facts of the world. This was Wittgenstein’s prescription for what he considered to be the disease of philosophy. He hoped it would also lead those who actually understood it to a solution to the problem of life, as “for an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed” (6.5). In other words, because science and philosophy are silent when it comes to the riddle of life, then there must not be any riddle to begin with. If there were, surely we would be able to answer it using their methods. “If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered” (6.5). If we doubt that we understand the riddle of life, we do so only because we question our own existence. But no question can be posed that cannot be answered, as if the question itself is meaningful then the answer must be implied by its logical structure. That Wittgenstein would have preferred to remain silent about all of this we can infer from the final lines of the Tractatus: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly” (6.54). He goes on to give what some might argue is the central thesis of the entire work: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (7).

The Tractatus was motivated by the early Wittgenstein’s desire to lift the ethical, religious, and mystical spheres of life so far above the hands of science and positivist philosophy that none of their methods could ever, even in theory, touch them. He wanted to save the transcendental from those who might try to call it sheer nonsense by removing it from the world of objects that is supposed to make sense. In a way, he was attempting to beat the positivists at their own game by pointing out the meaningless nature of metaphysical statements better than even they could hope to do. However, he did so not to make the purpose of such statements insignificant, but to elevate them beyond the “lower” significance of language (where value comes only by virtue of mirroring a true state of affairs in the world) into the “higher” significance of life (where value is assigned by virtue of what is beautiful). In so doing, he separated language and life in an attempt to preserve the best of both. However, by giving up the possibility of making meaningful statements about life and demanding that we pass over it in silence, Wittgenstein may have done more harm than good. Truth (science, the “It” world) had the persuasive power of language on its side, and so it was much more intellectually convincing than the mere silence offered by the Beautiful (life, “I” world).

Wittgenstein realized his mistake in his later works, most notably the Philosophical Investigations. He totally revamped his theory of language in order to give life back its linguistic sense. Instead of seeing meaning as the correct representation of the world, Wittgenstein realized that language was the very fabric of life itself. It’s meaning did not rest on the empirically verifiable facts of the physical world, but on the use it was put to in the every day conversations of people. If philosophy attempted to take language out of this context in order to find some underlying essence (some logical structure), it would only force the meaning of the words themselves to dissolve into uncertainty and confusion. Meaning is use, to put it quite simply. Our ability to communicate depends as much on the silent context and background of our conversations as it does on the audible (or legible) words we exchange.

This new view of language makes it resemble what complex systems theorists call an emergent property. Our ability to speak, write, and think (in short, our ability to exist as a mind) seems to emerge from our simpler bodily skills into a domain all its own. To say that the mind is an emergent property is to say that it forms its own autopoietic system. In other words, the mind enacts its own world, and this mental world cannot be explained away by reference to lower autopoietic levels (such as the biological or physical levels). If we view the entire kosmos as a nested hierarchy, from matter, to body, to mind, we find that the physiosphere (matter) must make up the lowest rung on the ladder. That is to say, the physical universe composes the most fundamental, and therefore the simplest and most common, level on the hierarchy. Positivist empirical science progressed as quickly and triumphantly as it did precisely because its object of inquiry (the physical world) was the easiest to understand. Emerging out of this lowest level is the biosphere. To emerge means to transcend the prior level while still obeying its basic laws. So the biosphere does something more complex that the physiosphere could ever do on its own, but never does it contradict the laws of matter. Organisms begin to enact their own autopoietic domains, building on the laws of matter to create a higher level of complexity. In so doing, they swallow up the world of the physiosphere, so to speak, forever altering our understanding of what it means for the kosmos to exist as it does. Once life is taken into consideration, no purely reductionistic explanation will ever satisfy us. That organisms, made of nothing but atoms, are somehow “alive” proves that matter is not at all what the materialists would have us believe. And when we begin to consider the emergence of mind, we see that life, too, is not at all what we expected. With the mind we have an even more complex autopoietic system built atop both matter and body. It is this level of mind that gave rise to our linguistic ability, and we can see in the work of the early Wittgenstein that this higher ability was mixed up in a kind of level crossing with the lower, physical level. He believed that language (or the mind) can state (or think of) nothing but what it finds in the material world. This belief was based on the power of the empirical method of investigation, which had proved so valuable when applied to the world of matter. When applied to the mind, however, it begins to show its limits. Sensory empiricism does indeed reveal the hidden laws of the purely physical world, but when we try to explain our use of language based solely on sensory experience we end up turning it into a kind of calculus or measuring device. To say that the only correct use of language is to logically map the facts of the world is to remove from language the notion of meaning that most people find absolutely vital. Language is not merely a tool designed to describe the physical world, though it can be put to this use. Rather, it is the “house of being” as Heidegger put it. It forms the matrix of our cultural worldspace. It brings us into a domain far above the physical world where ideas, values, and meanings take on a life of their own.

In his seminal work, Gödel, Escher, Bach, computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter began to realize that the mind was something very strange indeed. He saw that traditional physical reductionism did not do justice to the bizarre nature of mental abilities, so he began to study how a purely rule-based physical system could give rise to higher-level complexity. “My belief is that the explanations of ‘emergent’ phenomena in our brains- for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will-are based on a kind of strange loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self reinforcing ‘resonance’ between different levels” (p. 709). He acknowledges that the mind, to some extent, has operational power over the body and the world. This is a key advancement over prior positivist explanations that negate the mind all together. But he goes on: “This should not be taken as an antireductionist position. It just implies that a reductionistic explanation of mind, in order to be comprehensible, must bring in ‘soft’ concepts such as levels, mappings, and meanings. In principle, I have no doubt that a totally reductionistic but incomprehensible explanation of the brain exists; the problem is how to translate it into a language we ourselves can fathom. Surely we don’t want a description in terms of positions and momenta of particles; we want a description which relates neural activity to ‘signals’ (intermediate-level phenomena)-and which relates signals, in turn, to ‘symbols,’ including the presumed to exist ‘self-symbol'” (p. 709). We see then that, while Hofstadter certainly acknowledges the seeming incommensurability between matter and mind, he is unwilling to suppose that mind in fact transcends and includes matter. Instead, he wants to view the mind as a temporary “strange loop” that emerges from the physical universe much like a whirlpool emerges from a fast moving stream.

His view of emergence is unlike the one I have articulated above, in that it does not suppose that higher levels of emergence swallow up lower levels, making any reductionistic explanation not only incomprehensible, but also impossible. Once mind has emerged, we as the enactors of this new ability can no longer remove ourselves from it in order to explain it by reference to a prior level. The mental realm becomes irreducible as soon as it emerges. Meaning and value become real aspects of the kosmos that cannot be explained away by reference to physical processes, no matter how “strange” and “loopy” those processes are made to seem. Hofstadter believes that a “translation from low-level physical hardware to high-level psychological software” (p. 709) is possible. In other words, he thinks that mental processes can be reduced without remainder (translated) into physical processes. This “level crossing (between matter and mind) is what creates our nearly unanalyzable feelings of self” (p. 709), as our current inability to translate between the two levels accurately has given rise to an inner mental confusion that leads us to believe we have an individual identity. Hofstadter is certainly a naturalist, and as such he is committed to certain dogmatic creeds inherent to the practice of physicalist science. “The subjective feeling of redness comes from the vortex of self-perception in the brain; the objective wavelength is how you see things when you step back, outside the system. Though no one of us will ever be able to step back far enough to see the “big picture,” we shouldn’t forget that it exists. We should remember that physical law is what makes it all happen-way, way down in the neural nooks and crannies which are too remote for us to reach with our high-level introspective probes” (p. 710).

I can only assume that by “physical law” Hofstadter means the causal relations between mass and energy. These relationships are fundamental for him, not only in the sense that they form the foundation of the visible structure of the kosmos, but in the sense that they are all that is really real, all that actually exists. The biosphere and the noosphere are merely temporary disturbances in the dead shuffling around of unintelligent stardust. As wonderful as Hofstadter may feel such disturbances are, and as intricate and genius his supposed explanation of their existence may be, he still, it seems to me, damns them with faint praise. To say that subjective states of consciousness, such as the feeling of redness, are produced by a kind of dizzying confusion of self-perception in the brain is to uphold a kind of naïve realism that no empirical evidence supports. How are we to know what color “really” is? Why do we even ask the question? It seems that as soon as we doubt the self-explanatory nature of the phenomenon itself, we transform our understanding of the world into a kind of disinterested knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Color really is exactly what it seems to be; the feeling of redness needs no further explanation. When a naturalist tries to look deeper into reality to find what color really is, he jumps to the conclusion that some pre-existing material world surrounds us that “we,” to the extent that we can even be said to exist apart from it, must conform to and obey. But again, there is no strictly empirical proof that such a self-abiding objective world even exists. As subjective beings, we are forever limited to the perception of color as it appears. We can certainly invent elaborate intellectual structures to use as instruments to poke and prod the natural world in hopes that it will reveal its underlying secrets, but such structures cannot then be seen as more real than the phenomenon itself. The structures were invented after the fact of the experience itself. Nowhere in the immediate sensation of color is such a structure found. Rather, the structure is a construction of an overly doubtful mind.

The source of this doubting mind runs deep into the tradition of Western philosophy, finding its most notable articulation in the work of Descartes. Being, as he was, divided between both a religious and scientific outlook, unable to give up one or the other, Descartes was forced to separate the two into their own dimensions of existence. The mental world of imagination and ideas, of identity and meaning, he gave to God and the soul. The physical world of matter and energy, of purely mechanical process, he gave to science and technology. Subject and object, mind and matter, were for centuries afterward seen as two incompatible substances that could never be brought back together. Much like the early Wittgenstein, Descartes wanted to preserve the merits of religion along with the merits of science by separating the domains wherein each was valid. This predictably (as we have already seen with Wittgenstein) lead to an even bigger confusion. Highly religious idealists like Bishop Berkeley took the view that mind was all there was, as we have no way to prove that the physical world is anything but our own subjective projection. More worldly empiricists like Locke refuted Berkeley’s idealism by dividing the world of experience into primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities of mass, motion, shape, and number were deemed part of the real, objective physical universe. Secondary qualities like color, temperature, odor, and taste were deemed part of an illusory, subjective domain. In this spirit, one philosopher, Samuel Johnson, is said to have proven Berkeley’s subjectivism wrong by kicking a large boulder and saying, “I refute it thus!” Hofstadter belongs to this empiricist tradition, which was the clearest benefactor of the Enlightenment’s separation of the Big Three due to the easily recognizable and commonsense strength of such arguments. That the true reality was an objective and material universe made of measurable quantities without any subjective qualities seemed the most reasonable of assumptions. After all, no one ever saw anything like an idea with his or her eyes; all that was immediately visible was the physical world. This scientific paradigm is what lead the Big Three to become so distanced from one another. The Beautiful, the world of the individual imagination where one appreciated the immediate aesthetic wonderment offered by nature and artistic creation, and where one was awed by the mystery of existence itself, became a sort of subjective, solipsistic cage with no practical value. This was so because the True, the world of objective and empirical scientific fact, saw no reason why such an inner life should even exist. The universe, from this positivist perspective, was totally explainable by reference to the external interactions of material surfaces. This lead to the philosophy of logical analysis, to behaviorism, to sociobiology-in short: to reductionism in all its many forms. Even the new sciences of complexity do not escape the reductive attitude. As we see in Hofstadter, the universe is still thought of as a giant machine that, although capable of some pretty exciting quasi-emergent dance maneuvers that give rise to higher levels of complexity, is nevertheless running irreversibly downward toward disorder and chaos with no greater purpose or goal in mind. This is Hofstadter’s “big picture.” The fact that human beings exist with feelings and intelligence is a kind of cosmic fluke, even a joke. Our existence is highly unstable, as the universe we call home is one of cruel, causal necessity where any sense of higher meaning or purpose is but the sentimental dream of an insignificant, frightened, and confused little child left for dead upon a chunk of rock floating through empty, meaningless space.

Let me sum up in an attempt to be clearer. Hofstadter “defines the mind as the emergence of a neural feedback loop within the brain. It is this peculiar loop that allows a stream of cognitive symbols to twist back on itself, so creating the self-awareness and self-integration that constitute an ‘I'” (Booklist review of I Am a Strange Loop). But this “I” is not the “I” we feel ourselves to be, the identity that we believe gives us free will and the ability to choose to do the Good, etc. “I don’t see any room in this complex world for my will to be ‘free'” (p. 340). Hofstadter’s understanding of emergence in terms of “feedback loops” would not have sat well with Francisco Varela, whose notion of autopoiesis [introduced in collusion with Maturana in 1979 (which incidentally was the same year GEB was published) in Principles of Biological Autonomy] was an attempt to do away with the kind of framework that required inputs and outputs (such as the notion of feedback loops). “One of the central intentions of the study of autopoiesis and organizational closure is to describe a system with no inputs or outputs (which embody their control or constraints) and to emphasize their autonomous constitutions” (p. 56). If we view consciousness as a feedback loop, it becomes somewhat of a one-way street, not in the sense that higher level top-down influences cannot affect lower level properties of a system, but in the sense that a feedback loop “requires and implies an external source of reference, which is completely absent in organizational closure” (p. 56). To further clarify the concept of organizational closure: “A system is organizationally closed if all its possible states of activity must always lead to or generate further activity within itself” (Self Producing Systems by John Mingers, p. 31). This implies, in the case of the nervous system, that all neural activity effects, and is effected by, other neurons. “Even the motor and sensor neurons are no exception; they do not ‘open’ the nervous system to its environment. The motor neurons trigger sensor neurons through the activity they initiate, and sensor neurons are thereby internally stimulated.” Because the mind (or consciousness) is its own autopoietic system with its own enacted domain and organizational closure, to refer to it as a collection of “neural feedback loops” is to miss the essential meaning of the emergence of mind. To further explain the concept of autopoiesis, we can compare it to its opposite: allopoiesis. An allopoieic system is much like a car factory. It uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) that is something other than itself. An autopoietic system, on the other hand, uses raw materials to generate its own organizational structure. The various components of, say, a eukaryotic cell (mitochondria, cell membrane, ribosomes, nucleus, etc.) work to keep the cell alive by constantly re-creating themselves. So an autopoietic system is an open system with operational closure. That means while it uses outside material to build its structure (in the case of a cell, the various molecules and nutrients that keep it alive), making it an open system, it then uses those materials to enact a closed organizational space within a membrane where cell components can reproduce themselves. This notion of openness, however, when applied to the mind and nervous system, should not be mistaken for allowing some kind of sensory input into the system. To have a distinguishable sensory input, mental states would have to arise in a linear fashion: first a sensation, followed by a perception, finalized with a motor response. In the case of an actual mind, however, neural activity is organizationally closed, which means that it is not a blank slate upon which sensory data might write itself. The nature of any sensory data would be lost due to the nervous system’s pre-existing state always being a constant codependency between sense and response (sensory data and motor coordination). In other words, we could just as well reverse the sequence and say that perception is brought about by a kinesthetic change in the body, which then leads to the sensation of an environment. This reversal of the linear sequence does nothing but show how untenable the original sensation-perception-motor response sequence was. If a linear system with inputs and outputs be supposed, then both of these alternatives are equally possible and yet contradictory. “It may appear that the structure of an autopoietic system changes in relation to, or in response to, changes in its environment. But for an observer to see such changes in the environment as an input and the structural change as an output is to mischaracterize the system as allopoietic, since the changes will, actually, have been devoted to maintaining autopoiesis” (p. 33). In other words, while it may appear to an external observer that a certain system, say the brain, reacts to certain sensory inputs by changing its structure (an output), the reality is that the system itself, if autopoietic, has only been triggered to accommodate the environmental conditions. It is triggered and not controlled by the environment because the system’s response depends on its own organization, which, again, is closed and self-determining. In this way, no sensory input could ever be linked up with a motor output in a discrete and unambiguous way. The brain is not an information-processor where such linear, causal connections could be made.

Whenever a new idea as exciting as emergence pops onto the scene, we should expect that it will be stretched to the point of abuse and misunderstanding by the varying theorists and diverse disciplines that attempt to squeeze it into their field of inquiry in order to explain some heretofore incomprehensible phenomenon. Naturalists such as Hofstadter have committed themselves to the notion of a pre-existing world, “an external source of reference,” whereas enactivists like Varela have tossed aside such assumptions in favor of the more intuitively pleasing framework that integrates the “I” world and the “It” world without doing epistemological violence to either perspective by reducing it to the other. Varela’s universe is one of groundlessness, as his Buddhist background has given him access to an epistemological tradition that need not rest upon a stable, external world of material objects. Such a universe makes most Westerners uneasy, especially those of a naturalist bent, as if there is no ground to reality it is essentially a series of veils behind veils behind veils amounting in the end to pure (yet radiant) emptiness. There is, in such a universe, no final truth, no ultimate ground, and the scientist is therefore forced to give up his quest to discover and analyze it so as to announce to the world that all questions have been answered and all mysteries laid bare.

Varela sees the “I” differently than Hofstadter. “In my epistemology, the virtual self is evident because it provides a surface for interaction, but it’s not evident the moment you try to locate it. It’s completely delocalized” (The Third Culture by John Brockman, Ch. 12). This seems nearly identical to Hofstadter’s description, but the essential difference is that Varela’s “I,” or self, provides a “surface for interaction.” This surface is the hypothetical line drawn around the mind’s organizational closure. For Varela, the virtual self “produces its own boundary. It doesn’t require an external agent to notice it, to say ‘I’m here.’ It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics” (Ch. 12). This, again, sounds very similar to Hofstadter, but the essential difference is that Varela does not make use of the physical world as an external support structure for such bootstrapping. For him, emergent phenomena display a “screwy logic where the snake bites its own tale and you can’t discern a beginning.” This is unlike Hofstadter’s formulation where the snake is forced to balance itself upon the material world, supported as it were by purely physical law. It wobbles, unstably so at first, into the complex dance that supports its higher level functioning, though all along the dance floor remains the foundation of the whole operation. Again, for Varela “the nervous system is not an information-processing system, because, by definition, information-processing systems need clear inputs. The nervous system has internal, or operational, closure. We must deconstruct the notion that the brain is processing information and making a representation of the world.” In other words, we must see the mind as defining a new domain of existence that supercedes the domain of physics (and biology, for that matter). The mind transcends and includes the physical world, and so if we were going to attempt to describe how such an emergence was possible, it would be better to start from mind and work our way down. This is the exact opposite of Hofstadter’s approach. He sees the world as an object to be known, whereas for Varela “knowledge coevolves with the knower and [has nothing to do with] an outside, objective representation.” He goes on to attack the notion that physics is somehow fundamental to reality: “A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms. Such statements, while true, are irrelevant. There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the (physicist’s) abstractions. We have to abandon the enormous deadweight of the materialism of the Western tradition and turn to a more planetary way of thinking.”

So we see, then, that with the help of Wittgenstein, language was raised into a new, emergent domain with organizational closure. Its use was its meaning, and its meaning composed the very being of the lifeworld. Reducing or translating its symbols into atomic facts that mirror the state of the physical world could not explain the mental worldspace enacted therein. Hofstadter was not totally ignorant of this fact, as he understood the necessity of making reference to the softer domains of psychological phenomena in order to explain how consciousness works in a believable, understandable, and humanly acceptable way. However, because he could not give up his prized belief in the primacy of the physical universe, his descriptions remained reductive by not offering the kind of organizational closure that Varela saw as crucial for understanding the higher and more complex qualities that emerge in the biological and mental spheres of reality. To understand what it is for life to have a meaning, we cannot look down the nested hierarchy of being to mass and energy for an explanation. The “I” world of mental phenomena is not merely a feedback loop propped up by an accidental conglomeration of dumb particles; it is an emergent domain whose existence was enfolded in and implied by the physical universe from the very beginning. Matter is not the blind and unintelligent substance positivist science would have us believe. Rather, it is the very seed of life and consciousness itself. Matter, if you will excuse the clumsiness of the metaphor, wanted to come alive; and further, life wanted to become conscious. The kosmos is striving toward something and has an undeniable telos built into its very structure and substance. Indeed, it is even willing to repeatedly transcend itself, a rebirth of sorts, into ever higher and more complex emergent domains.

To return once again to the Big Three, we can see that an integration of the “I” world of consciousness and the “It” world of mass and energy is necessary before any legitimate progress in the “We” world of ethics is possible. If no bridge between the “I” and “It” is built, the “We” becomes seemingly non-existent. The “I” world exists only to myself; the “It” world exists to no one in particular, but rather is the environment within which I and all other I’s are forced to conform and adapt. The only ethics possible in this situation, if we are to call them ethics at all, would arise out of my own self-interest. Sociobiology is the result of the “We” world being so confused and up for grabs. Science had to lay claim to the territory, as it is an inherently expansive epistemology that seeks to explain all possible domains of existence regardless of their sanctity. Ethics, which exists genuinely only at the level of mind (which positivist science rejects altogether), was thereby reduced to the blind biological instincts of self-preservation. This reduction is a totally disaster, not only philosophically, but practically, as it opens up the possibility that the Good includes genocide and eugenics. Such ideas are intuitively evil to almost anyone who contemplates them; however, a purely positivist science cannot admit of such intuitions. They are too subjective to be taken seriously. This is a moral catastrophe.

Spellbound: Magic Words and Minds Without Self


There was a time when physics, still high on the spirit of the Enlightenment, took seriously the idea that its measurements of the fundamental stuff composing the universe could explain just about everything worth knowing about. Granted, it didn’t have all the necessary measurements compiled just yet, but it assured everyone that it was just a matter of how much time it would take to do the necessary calculating and experimenting. Time passed, and just when they thought they were about to figure it all out, Einstein shook the faith by discovering that the physical laws once thought to have absolute frames of reference were actually relative. Not all was lost, but soon after, quantum mechanics laid to rest the notion that there could even be any fundamental “stuff” to begin with. It turned out the universe wasn’t made of anything but measurements [QQ]. As Alan Watts put it, “[The physical universe] was all form and no matter, or all a matter of form” [LHG]. This lead the renowned physicist Sir Author Eddington to remark, “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature” [QQ 179]. In other words, the “objective observer” was a myth-the method one selects for measuring the world has a direct effect on the way the world then appears.

I tell this story because of the many striking parallels it seems to have with the most recent trends in the cognitive sciences. There was a time when these scientists of the mind, still under the spell of a subtle form of Cartesian dualism, believed representation was the fundamental function of the brain. They labored tirelessly for decades searching for a coherent and naturalizable story of representation, but it was to no avail. There is, of course, much debate about what “representation” actually means and how it should be used in reference to certain types of mental processes. Let us therefore be explicit about the meaning of this word “representation” for the purposes of this essay. Representation shall be used to refer to any description that rests on a Cartesian view of the mind. That is, any theory of the mind which posits a sort of inner “I-ness” that receives and interprets recreations of an outer “otherness,” such that that which is outside the skull must be transformed into some inner, mental language before it could be understood. The problem is that any representational approach to the mind this wrapped up in dualism cannot ever be fully naturalized. Just as physicists once believed there was a meaningful distinction between form and substance, cognitive scientists once believed there was a similar distinction between the mind and the world itself (indeed many still do[1]). As Erwin Schrödinger has said, from this dualistic perspective “we do not belong to the material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies belong to it” [QQ 83]. This essay will combine the approaches of theorists like Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, John Haugeland and Brian Smith, who all seem to be forcing the field in a new direction, one even they themselves feel uneasy about. Like the quantum physicists who came before them, their data has lead them to a strange place indeed. I will begin this essay by fleshing out the collective conclusions of the above philosophers, using Dennett’s notion of minds as user-less bundles of tools and his affinity for evolutionary explanations to lay out the findings they are all so uncomfortable with. I will then attempt to pick up where they left off, using mythological imagery and Buddhist phenomenology to ground their surprising philosophical findings in our own direct experience.

The User-Illusion

In a discussion on Dennett’s ideas, Smith says, “We have a remarkable amount of agreement, such that in fact we may almost be ready to let go of that R-word, and actually make some progress” [PMR 101]. For Dennett, representation becomes a linguistic skill available only to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and write in a public language [PMR 91]. It is, therefore, not something animals can use to get around the world. He goes on to suggest that “Our kind of consciousness is not anything we are born with, not part of our innate hardwiring, but in surprisingly large measure, an artifact of our immersion in human culture” [PMR 79]. Dennett’s word choice, referring to consciousness as “an artifact,” strikes me as especially significant. It would seem that Dennett is suggesting that the “user-illusion,” as he calls our type of consciousness, is a by-product of our language, especially when written.

Let’s take a step back.

What is consciousness, for Dennett? The short answer is we really shouldn’t phrase the question in quite that way. To ask what consciousness is immediately turns it into something ontologically separate from the body and the world. This is the pre-emptive registration that Smith wants us to avoid [TMR 225]. Dennett, similarly, is everywhere on the look out for this kind of Cartesian dualism. Consciousness, for him, can only be described behaviorally. Therefore, those organisms that act appropriately within their environment are said to be conscious.

When we ask, “What is consciousness,” we are really asking about the self. We want to view consciousness as a distinct kind of thing because we want to view ourselves as individual, undetermined egos. For, if being conscious means merely to behave in a certain way (as part of a normative community), then my inner sense of “I-ness” is secondary-a kind of epiphenomenon-nothing more than a collection of meaningless private thoughts floating away from the “real” world, the world that you can pound with your fist, or at least shout out loud about without fear of seeming crazy to others. Meaning, so this story goes, comes from the community. What is true is what the community has agreed upon. But there is a further force at work, something unconscious constraining the kinds of agreements the community can reach. It is the evolutionary force, and it doesn’t care much about what we want be true. For the same reason Dennett wants to get rid of the homunculus in the skull, he wants to get rid of the self-directed society, that real sense of a collective “we” that freely decides what ought to be [TMR 289]. Dennett wants to continue using the evolutionary metaphor that works so well in biology to show us that people and societies do what they do because of similar pressures. It is here that he disagrees with Smith and Haugeland, as they want to keep that sense of a “we who decides” over and above the impersonal hand of evolution [TMR 263, 289].

So then, choosing Darwin as our guide, let us try and find the evolutionary purpose of the “user-illusion” in the humanity of present. To do so we must first understand the consciousnesses of our ancestry. Plants seem to take an intentional stance toward the Sun, tracking it across the sky in some cases, but it becomes meaningless to ask if they are actually having thoughts about it. Let’s try animals. Animal consciousness is focused on the direct environment in ways we might call conceptual. They can pay attention to, or have intentional states about, certain “targets” in the environment and the patterns they follow over time, both locally and, to a certain extent, distally.[2] Humans, however, can have intentional states not only about the so-called targets themselves (as presented to any of the five senses), but also about the names of those targets as they exist within a language game. The naming of targets transforms them into objects, and we must be careful not to confuse objects with their primordial cousins. When Dennett is asked if animals can represent objects, he responds that they “can behave vis-à-vis [objects] in all sorts of really adroit ways” [TMR 108]. The point is the world does not appear to them as a collection of objects, but rather as a “direct recipe for action” [WBMWC 10].

The human ability to abstract objects from targets leads to what Dennett refers to as florid representation, and without it he feels we are somehow sub-human. In fact, many people alive today are yet to become florid [TMR 107]. Children provide the most obvious example, being “language virtuosos” [TMR 108], but not yet understanding the full implication of their abilities. The discovery that words are symbols for the real thing, and that they can be skillfully arranged to communicate meta-meanings, still awaits them. It is here, however, that the really interesting discovery is made, that words are not used, but instead compose our very being [78]. Our “selves”-our sense of being a self-supporting, well-behaving, rational actor-rest so heavily on language that it is fair to say we are nobody without it.

Language: Verbal and Written

The notion that “I” communicate with those who are “other” than me is the crux of the language game, built into its very grammatical structure. But the kind of “other” met while speaking language, engaging in a direct face-to-face conversation, is quite different from the kind met while writing, when the “other” is at a distance and becomes more objectified. When speaking, people (at least when they truly understand each other) are in communion with one another. They exhibit what Martin Buber calls an “Ich-Du,” or “I-You” relationship to one another (more on this in a moment) [IT 73]. If we view this from an evolutionary perspective, a coherent story begins to emerge. All evidence suggests that the first forms of language were vocal. We can then infer that, prior to the invention of written language, human beings had a type of consciousness far different from the one most of us has today. Buber refers to this kind of archaic consciousness as “I-You,” which means that it doesn’t yet consider the “other” as an object that is encountered. Rather, it views the “other” as a part of itself, something to be reconciled and understood in a participatory way. Buber says those with this kind of consciousness “have not yet recognized themselves as an ‘I'” apart from an “other” [IT 73]. This would make sense, as the subject/object ontology inherent to the grammar of written systems was not yet available to the mind.[3] One might object to this characterization on the grounds that the whole story of natural selection requires at least some sense of self-preservation. Why do animals even try to survive unless they have a sense of “I-ness”? Buber explains that in the case of animals, “What wants to propagate itself is not the ‘I’ but the body that does not yet know of any ‘I.'” Bodies are survival machines. They have no inner sense that “wants” to survive; surviving is just what they do. Evolution has a way of recapitulating itself at ever more complex scales. Organisms first appeared as an emergent property of the physical world, living on top of it as though their bodies were an autopoietic, self-transforming software program running on the hardware of the world. When organisms evolved into more complex animals like ourselves, another emergent property sprang forth, that called the “I,” or ego. The ego seems to float atop the biological brain in the same way that the organism floats atop the physical world. The ego’s relationship to the body is made clearer in the following example: “I” feel responsible for styling my hair, but “I” do not feel responsible for growing it.

It was not until the advent of written language that humanity was able to stake its claim so high above the animal kingdom-to say, “I have a body” instead of “I am a body.” The body and the mind were thus torn apart as humanity began to take on a new kind of consciousness, one Buber calls the “Ich-Es,” or “I-It.” “The I that has emerged,” says Buber, “proclaims itself as the carrier of sensations and the environment as their object” [IT 74].

He continues:

Of course, this happens in a “primitive” and not in an “epistemological” manner; yet once the sentence “I see the tree” has been pronounced in such a way that it no longer relates a relation between a human “I” and a tree “You” [as in “I-You” consciousness] but the perception of the tree object [It] by the human consciousness [I], it has erected the crucial barrier between subject and object… [IT 74].

This barrier was “primitive” and not yet “epistemological” because floridity had not yet fully developed. The kinds of philosophical meta-thinking, for example, that lead Descartes to the Cogito took a bit more evolution[4], but its seeds were sown when the first alphabets were systematized.

Forbidden Fruit

As we’ve seen, “Research into the origins of language is really research into the origins of consciousness,” as William Irwin Thompson has said [TFBTL 84]. But how can we to attempt to grasp such origins when it seems that “Man is man through language alone-but in order to invent language he must have been man already” [TFBTL 85]? Might the search for the origins of language bring us to the limits of our knowledge? It seems so, but for Thompson, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth” [TFBTL 87]. Let us then shift our method of investigation from the philosophical to the mythological.

A “myth” is often considered synonymous with a lie, or a fanciful story made up for religious purposes bearing no relation to the actual state of affairs. But let us, for a moment, consider a new use for the myth-let us refer to it as an image or metaphor in terms of which we can attempt to understand our past. This kind of approach may seem a bit too gooey and mystical for modern academic philosophy to take seriously, but in the kind of post-modern philosophical territory that says your job is to figure out what all these scribbles mean using only the same scribbles, you are forced into using tools other than just your rational intellect. “If we try to do without poetry and esoteric mythology to describe precisely and scientifically how language evolved,” says Thompson, “we find that there is no causal explanation” [TFBTL 93]. If we use only our rational intellects-our words-we will never find a purpose or foundation for their use. Trying to do so is a bit like “shining a flashlight in search of darkness” [TFBTL 87].

Let us move on, then, to the question at hand. Where did language (with the rational mind riding on its coat tails) come from? Thompson again: “The scientist looks for a cause inside time; a mystic knows that causality is essentially a process that is outside time-space” [TFBTL 94]. What does it mean for causality to be “outside time-space”? Thompson provides an apt example using the mythical relationship between women and the moon. Numerous studies have shown that women who live in close proximity to one another tend to have menstrual periods at the same time [MSS 171]. Other studies have shown that woman who live near the equator tend to ovulate in synchrony with the full moon [UH 106]. So then, “It is reasonable for us to expect that [prehistoric] women living together in small hunting and gathering bands would all have their menstrual periods at the same time” in synchrony with the moon [TFBTL 96]. The primitive consciousness of early humanity, lacking our more linguistically developed minds, mistook this correlative relationship for a causative one. So, as it were, the moon caused women to menstruate and even to give birth. At this stage in the development of human consciousness, such a belief made very good sense. In fact, we might say it marked the beginning of our understanding of the regularities of nature. It was this kind of understanding, the kind that allowed our ancestors to link the cycles of their bodies to the phases of the moon [TFBTL 97], that, with the help of a more stable form of expression, would mature into our kind of thinking.[5]

That more stable form of expression was written language, born along side the ancient walls built to divide the first human cities from nature. This division of culture from nature occurred in the individual, as well.

Thompson again:

The rise of writing helps to break up the continuum of the sensorium and locates consciousness in the written word. What the written word is to the sensorium, the ego is to the entire consciousness” [TFBTL 196].

We can say then, that the ego gains its strength from words, from the “I.” Using the Biblical myth of the Fall of Man as our metaphor, we can see now that the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the alphabet. When Adam ate of the fruit offered him by Eve, he gained knowledge of himself. With this knowledge came all the wonderful inventions we now hold in esteem as monuments to our great progress as a species. But this most promising of realizations carried with it a tragic flaw, for even with all the technological power it put in our hands, it left us powerless before the new reality of death. The identification of consciousness with the ego necessitates death, as to be born into this world as an “I” means the eventual death of that “I” is unavoidable.

“Writing, individuation, and civilization are all parts of one larger cultural phenomenology,” says Thompson [TFBTL 196]. And so it was that with the birth of written language[6] came the birth of the ego and the birth of its civilization. But because the ego fears its own death so immensely, it reaps havoc upon all that is other to it in a desperate attempt to make a name for itself that will live forever. We see all around us today the result of this struggle, as the egos of humankind rush toward their own destruction in search of salvation. It is not the brutish and primitive among us that are causing this disaster, but the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most educated. It is the rational ego that wages war, pollutes the environment, and exploits its own kind. The call to transcend this identification with words has become urgent, and Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the mind is a collection of user-less tools couldn’t have come at a time more desperate for the application of its implications than now.

The Implications of Minds as User-less Tool Kits

Andy Clark, in his essay on Dennett, explains how “language uniquely positions us to create a cascade of new mind-tools that literally transform us into more powerful (but extended) cognitive engines” [TMR 77]. This creates a situation “where you peel away layers of equipment as you would peel away the layers of an onion, ending up with nothing at all in the way of a central core” [TMR 78]. Without a central core, it seems that all notions of personal responsibility become untenable.

Clark disagrees:

None of this forces us to give up on the morally and socially crucial notion of persons and of thinking agents. One potential reconstruction might begin with the phenomenological facts of first-person experience. A tool/user divide might then be motivated by facts about how things seem to an agent… [TMR 78]

The “phenomenological facts of first-person experience” may not be as easily understood as Clark here assumes. The user-illusion is called an illusion for a reason, and its deceptions are powerful indeed. For Dennett, human culture has created a “kind of cognitive organization-a new ‘virtual machine’-that allows us to weave a kind of ongoing narrative that artificially ‘fixes’ our cognitive contents” [TMR 79]. This fixation is artificial because, “underneath the personal-level narrative stream the more fundamental multiple processing streams” that actually make up our cognitive apparatus and allow it to function in the world have no stable locus of control. It is only our cultural upbringing that inculcates a sense of “I-ness,” and therefore, for Clark, “much of the burden is shifted from the notion of consciousness to the notion of personhood.” In other words, we no longer need to worry about finding the self in the mind because “having a self” really means being a person, and being a person means being part of a normative community. But many problems still remain. If being a person means using all kinds of tools to extend cognition, drawing boundaries around what counts as a person and what counts as a tool becomes tricky, if not impossible. If I miss my girlfriend’s call because my cell phone lost signal, am I then responsible for not answering?

Faced with these kinds of problems, Dennett is lead to conclude, “The notion of a person is a forensic notion… It’s not a metaphysical fact about the nature of persons intrinsically in themselves” [TMR 98].

It would seem, then, that the phenomenological experience of most people is in flat contradiction with the actual state of affairs. Most of us feel as though the stories we tell when asked really do represent a stable ego that is responsible and willful. We feel as though we really are separate from everyone else, even though our whole sense of “I-ness” comes directly from our relationship to the community, from that which is “other” than “I.” As Buber has said, the “I” is nothing without the “It.” Smith came to a similar conclusion, showing that subjects cannot exist without objects [TMR 225].

The call to transform our sense of ourselves seems loud and clear. The ego has been made ripe for this transformation by the stress of modern life. Raised by a society that implores it to do that which will only be acceptable if done voluntarily-to love because it must, share because it must, be responsible because it must-the ego is caught in a catch-22. The only remaining way out is awakening to what Buddhists refer to as one’s inherent Buddha Nature.


Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the human mind is made of nothing but a bundle of user-less tools is compelling enough to demand that its implications be extended to our direct experience of life. How, though, can we make such a convincing aspect of our experience transparent while still retaining a sense of moral responsibility? It is clear that the user-illusion once played a huge role in society, allowing it to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But once the truth of its very namesake has been discovered[7], its power becomes rather unconvincing. This is made evident by the characteristically irresponsible behavior of modern society, especially the youngest generations, who are always ready to blame circumstance for their mistakes without remorse. The authority of the community is no longer persuasive enough to convince the populace that its external rules ought to be obeyed. The sense of responsible agency projected onto the individual from without by the society is no longer acceptable. The only solution to this moral crisis is to turn inward for ethical guidance, leaving aside all forms of socially imposed morality. This may at first seem like support for total anarchy, as, if everyone acted out of their own inner selfishness, society would become more chaotic than it already is. But the whole point of awakening to an inner sense of morality is that the ego is transcended. Therefore, with the ego no longer the reigning identification of consciousness, selfishness disappears and one acts out of total benevolence and compassion for all “others.” Attaining such an awakened state is often easier said than done, of course. The real issue, then, is not merely to convince people that this kind of transformation is necessary. Certainly, everyone would probably agree that it sounds great on paper. The issue is how to actually evoke the transformation.

If the evolutionary story told thus far is accurate, we can assume that, in a sense, the transformation will eventually evoke itself. Consciousness has been transcending itself into ever-higher states since the beginning of time, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t do so again. Even so, this in no way takes responsibility away from the individuals that work to bring such a transformation about. How, though, is it to be done?

Buddhism offers a variety of paths, most of which are centered on a meditative practice. What exactly it means to meditate is a matter of much controversy, even within the Buddhist community. But the basic idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to one’s own mind until the sense of “I-ness” is seen for what it is. With enough practice, the “I” becomes a relative truth, a way of speaking. In other words, for all practical purposes of communication and day-to-day interaction, the mask of personhood does just fine. But to mistake this mask for one’s original face-to take seriously the notion that ‘I” am truly separate-is to live in ignorance of one’s actual nature. The very word, “person,” is derived from the Greek “persona,” which refers to the masks worn by stage actors.[8]

It may be asked, though, if the notion of personhood and Buddhahood do not in actuality conflict, why is the inner transformation necessary at all? The goal of Buddhist practice is not merely the belief in this idea of selflessness; it is the direct experience of it. And this direct experience of the lack of self, something Buddhist’s refer to as satori (roughly translated as “enlightenment”), forever changes one’s interpretation of what it means to wear the mask of personhood. The change settles the inner conflict created by the identification with a personal ego, releasing one from the double-bind inherent to this struggle to be that which it is impossible to be. The person who feels themselves to be a skin-encapsulated ego is in search of a stable “I” that never seems to turn up. This leads to all kinds of internal psychosis and fragmentation. Worse, it leads to the projection of inner fear onto others in the form of hatred and hostility. The realization of one’s true state, that which lacks a self, allows the mask to be worn without conflict, as it no longer represents the do all and end all of one’s existence. Instead, one’s consciousness rests in the eternal “now” moment, free from objectification and arbitrary boundary enforcement. One approaches the world with total acceptance, facing other people not as separate entities or objects to be properly understood and mechanically dealt with, but as living presences one can’t help but be in creative and compassionate communion with. The awakened person, having this sense of their true identity, is far freer and far more capable of being truly responsible than is the naïve, ego-identified person.


There is, as Alan Wallace calls it, a “taboo of subjectivity” in our modern day scientific culture. It is this taboo that makes the quantum physicist so uncomfortable with the notion that the observer, the subject, has a role to play in how the observed, the object, appears. In the same way, the cognitive scientist’s “Cartesian anxiety[9]” keeps him or her from realizing that the mind cannot be said to exist as something separate from the body and the world. Just as the physicist cannot ignore the data leading them to their conclusions about what the physical world is (or isn’t), the cognitive scientist cannot ignore their data about what the mind is (or isn’t). All attempts to build truly intelligent machines using a representational model have failed. Descartes conception of the mind as an internal, otherworldly entity that views the outside only as a representation has similarly failed, having been shown to be too supernatural to be taken seriously. We are thus forced to find a new way to understand how the organic mind works, one that doesn’t assume the ontological constructions of our language are built into the real make-up of the world. As members of a community of language speakers, we are prone to make comments like “I have a body.” But our metaphysical microscopes have shown us that such a statement, while not entirely false, is merely true enough. It is truer to say “I am a body.” Of course, if I am a body then I must be just as responsible for beating my heart and growing my bones as I am for tying my shoelaces and brushing my teeth.[10] Trying to make sense of this kind of situation boils down to where we want to draw the arbitrary boundaries that separate what I do from what is done to me. The whole point of this essay, though, is that this “I” is itself an artificial boundary.

Take breathing, for instance. Now that you have been made aware of your breath, it seems that it is a voluntary process. However, just a moment ago, before I mentioned it, your lungs went about their business without you paying them the slightest bit of attention. Trying to figure out which way it really is, whether you breathe or are breathed, amounts to total nonsense. We simply cannot know because our language has here met its maker.

It is here that Buddhism comes to the rescue. Buddhism doesn’t propose to solve the problem by telling you what is going in these kinds of situations. Instead, it makes an attempt to show you by leading you toward the experience of satori. Satori solves the problem by showing that there never was one to begin with, as your ordinary sense of being an ego wrapped in a bag of skin is seen for what it is-a hallucination created by the language game of your society. Only once this realization has occurred can the socially defined “person” become a truly moral being, as only then can real altruism and compassion come about from within. For the person still chasing after an imaginary ego, morality becomes something external that must be obeyed for fear of punishment. For the awakened person, the world and everyone in it ceases to be “other,” instead becoming the one true self, the upper-case Self. “In the language of the sages, only the Buddha Nature, or Brahman, or Allah, or God, sees or hears or experiences anything at all” [MI 30]. All true morality stems from this understanding.

Works Cited

Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time. Boulder: West View Press. 1976.
Buber, Martin. Translated by William Kaufman. I and Thou. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1970.
Clapin, Hugh. Philosophy of Mental Representation. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2002.
Clark, Andy. “Where Brain, Body, and World Collide.” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 127. 1998.
Engel, Andreas. Debener, Stefan. Kranczioch, Camilia. “Coming to Attention.” Scientific American. July 2006.
Harding, D.E. The Mind’s I. New York: Bantam. 1981.
McClintock, Martha. “Menstrual Synchrony and Suppression.” Nature, Jan. 1971. Volume 229.
Reps, Paul. Senzaki, Nyogen. Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Boston: Tuttle Publishing. 1957.
Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. New York: St. Martin Press. 1981.
Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1991.
Wallace, Alan. The Taboo of Subjectivity. Oxford: University Press. 2000.
Watts, Alan. “Learning the Human Game.” Recorded lecture, 1967.
Wilber, Ken. Quantum Questions. Boston: Shambhala. 2001.

[1] This leads neuroscientists to ask questions like, “What happens in our brains when we deliberately concentrate on something?” The answer given is that a “ballet of neurons” becomes active in the brain when objects are focused on. But this explains nothing. It amounts to saying: “I decide because my brain behaves in a certain way.” The neuroscientist has over-emphasized the figure and completely forgotten the ground. The brain is nothing without the body, and the body is nothing without the world. To say, “I decide what to see,” you must neglect the possibility that the world decides for you [CA].

[2] To track non-effective targets for a substantial period of time, animals would need the mnemonic aid of words. As a language-using human, I can talk/think/write about objects that are not present (i.e., represent them) because I use words to stabilize them [PMR 105].

[3] Why can’t a purely verbal language game have a subject/object ontology? -Because it isn’t stable enough to hold such an abstract ontological structure together. It takes the aid of the written word for consciousness to make such a jump.

[4] Evolution, in this sense, is not evolution driven by natural selection alone. It has access to more tools than that. It is only the “I-It” consciousness that projects the “survival of the fittest” metaphor onto nature, after all. This kind of evolution makes leaps to higher and more organized states all at once, as though it knew where it was going before it got there. The study of emergent behaviors in systems theory here becomes very relevant. This may also be how Good Tricks [PMR 113] come about.

[5] The earliest known forms of “writing” are scratches on bone fragments designed to model the phases of the moon (and the cycle of menstruation) [TFBTL 97].

[6] Alphabets and written languages go hand-in-hand, the purpose of the alphabet being to capture vocal utterances in symbolic jars called letters so they can be recorded and standardized by grammaticians.

[7] It is an illusion, after all.

[8] The modern obsession with movie stars and celebrities is a perfect example of the glorification of the ego. They are worshipped because they represent what is usually considered the pinnacle of egohood: fame and recognition.

[9] “The usual response of the cognitive scientist [because of the Cartesian anxiety] is to ignore the experiential aspect when she does science and ignore the scientific discovery when she leads her life” [TEM 239].

[10] Indeed, if “I am a body” is truer, then “I am the All” is truest. If the body reacts to its environment as though it were a “direct recipe for action,” then the body and the world are coupled. I (not the ego but the deeper Self) become equally as responsible for rising the Sun and blowing the wind as I am for growing my bones and brushing my teeth.